I Found A New Baby is a monthly column that seeks to shed light on swing music from the past and present, looking at albums from musicians who were once considered the biggest names around, and those who keep the style alive in the present day.
As swing music faded from popularity, many musicians took to different styles, veering into be-bop, jump blues, and R&B. Buddy Johnson, however, always had his inspired hands lodged firmly in the blues, prompting newspaper reviewers to label his band as the “New York blues band.” Over the decades he was active, the blues ran through Johnson’s releases, from slow R&B laments like “Since I Fell For You,” to the deep longing of “Root Man Blues” (which features a stellar vocal performance from Harold “Geezil” Minerve). His love of the style kept a real pang of heart and soul in his music, even when he upped the tempo.
As far as jazz musician stories go, Johnson’s is one of the more positive ones out there. He began playing piano at four years old, favouring classical music above the styles he became known for. Once he graduated Mayo High School in Darlington County, South Carolina, he went on to play with the Cotton Club Revue out of New York City. From this Johnson was able to hone his skill as a performer and get a taste of the world, travelling across the world to play with the band. He returned and started up his own band, The Buddy Johnson Orchestra, which, over the decades ahead, featured 17 musicians at Johnson’s helm. In time he brought in vocalist Arthur Prysock and his own sister, Ella Johnson, who would go on to contribute to some of his most famous hits like “Fine Brown Frame,” When My Man Comes Home,” and the aforementioned “Since I Fell For You.”
From there Johnson flourished, performing to often sold out crowds in the famous Savoy Ballroom between 1940 and 1958, rightly earning Johnson the title as the “King of the Savoy.” During that time Johnson went from recording with Decca to joining Mercury Records, and then finally the Roulette label in 1959. (He also recorded a single session with the Old Town label in 1964.) While there have been plenty of re-releases since Johnson’s death in 1977, he is an artist probably due an extensive reconsideration; a full set compiling everything in one place would be a treat, and the Complete Jazz Series collection of his works does a pretty good job in the absence of that. In 1996 the Ace label released Walk ‘Em, which brings together 24 of Johnson’s recordings from his time at Decca, providing a welcoming overview of his style.
Perhaps the biggest fault Walk ‘Em has is that it doesn’t give the best idea of how nimble and underrated Johnson was primarily as a swing composer. There plenty of tracks on Walk ‘Em which swing, but they owe more to Jump Blues and R&B than they do to traditional swing (a great deal of the tracks here come from recordings made between 1946 and 1952). On the plus side, that does make for tracks that bellow a jubilant kind of jukebox-ready joy. “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball?” might be something of a novelty track (it pays homage to the legendary player who broke the colour barriers in professional baseball), but it’s still perky and upbeat. “Southern Echoes” is light and carefree, leaving a little dust trail in its wake while “Walk ‘Em” is snappy and smooth, Johnson’s piano providing a skeleton for the horns to bounce around in (Johnson describes the track as “a simple dance vehicle because he felt sorry for everyone who couldn’t jitterbug spectacularly”). A definite highlight is closing track “Shufflin’ And Rollin’,” which seems to take all the best bits from Lucky Millinder’s brassy style, the smoothness of the forthcoming rock’n’roll era, and the swishing percussion of the swing era.
Johnson’s style was ultimately a modest one, though. While his band could certainly sound as huge as the likes of Benny Goodman’s biggest bands, Johnson kept himself out of focus when the horns and reeds were playing. His skill on the piano is undeniable, whether he’s morphing the piano riff of Louis Prima’s classic “Just A Gigolo” on “Baby You’re Always On My Mind,” or noodling about with a light hearted air on “Be Careful”; he never goes to take the spotlight for too long (if at all). Most of his tracks are keeping within the three minute limit of the time era, so solos on Johnson’s work are few, everything snappy and not lingering longer than it needs to. It lines up with Johnson’s most famous years: once he had his spot enthralling and playing for crowds he retired away for the most part, letting the other kings and queens of swing carry on in the background while new musical styles took the public’s attention.
To say jazz musician Vince Giordano has a fondness for collecting musical scores would be to put it much too lightly. The American bass saxophonist and leader of the New York-based Nighthawks Orchestra has something close to 60,000 scores in his collection, so it’s safe to say he’s pretty well versed in this area. Unsurprisingly his soundtrack work is fairly extensive too, going from soundtracking the TV series Boardwalk Empire to providing music for films by Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Zwigoff, and Sam Mendes in various forms. One director who has used Giordano’s talents multiple times is Woody Allen, which isn’t too surprising. Allen has a penchant for films set in 1920’s and 1930’s, and Giordano has a particular proclivity for the music of that era.
On their most recent outing together – the soundtrack to Allen’s 2016 film Café Society – the wonderful, seamless melding of minds shows itself off with nimble, light-hearted grace. The tone of many of Woody Allen’s films is sardonic but well-meaning – a love triangle or a simple love affair tripped up by a slightly unordinary event or ill timing –and here on the soundtrack to Café Society in particular it is that caught with a wispy splendour. While Giordano’s go-to instrument might be the bass saxophone, here he keeps the set up small, often opting for a small quartet with himself playing bass with a version of his Nighthawks band. Pianist Peter Yarin takes the spotlight for the majority of the track credited to Giordano on the soundtrack here, his nimble, sprightly touch bringing a radiant joy to the music.
Particular highlights include opening track “The Lady Is A Tramp,” which is executed with a flustered hurry in its step (one can easily pass over the song’s central melody as a consequence), but loses no grace as a consequence. “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” feels like it’s floating on air for the most part, and the key changes only help it ascend into the clouds higher while Ken Salvo’s guitar intro to “Jeepers Creepers” launches it lightly into a flowery space of pleasure. “There’s A Small Hotel” glides by with a clean elegance, carried forward from the romantic sweep of tracks like “Manhattan” and “My Romance.” When Kat Edmonson joins in with her era-appropriate nasal voice on the chipper “Mountain Greenery” you might as well be wandering around the streets of New York in the early 30’s.
Likewise with Allen’s films, the surroundings are just as important as the main attraction – and Giordano is given some exquisite company on the soundtrack here. Allen’s regular pianist Conal Fowkes fits in particularly well at the end of the disc with two numbers that sound like a continuation of Giordano’s style; “Out of Nowhere” is dreamy and fluffy while “This Can’t Be Love” is as jubilant as it is technically precise. Elsewhere there’s Ben Selvin’s take on “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which is most famous for the version released by the Flamingos in 1959, but here is like a daydream of cushy strings and pillowy horns. Count Basie’s uppity “Taxi War Dance (Alternate Take)” and Benny Goodman’s regal “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (78 RPM Version)” add a timely charm to the soundtrack, and although “Taxi War Dance” in particular contrasts the tempo of the surrounding tracks, it is another example of Allen picking fine and easily forgotten nuggets from the endless archive of early swing music.
Café Society is Giordano’s place to shine, though, him and his band taking most of the time here. Giordano plays second, if not third fiddle for the most part, always letting his other plays go ahead and take the focus, especially pianist Peter Yarin, as mentioned above. If the work here doesn’t specifically showcase Giordano’s skill as musician (though listening out for his simple, smooth, and sultry bass playing is thoroughly recommended if you want to follow the song’s strong core), it definitely showcases his talent as a composer, creating a world out of little fanfare and flourish. There are a thousand words to be read from a single piano chord or the buoyant tone of a guitar, and Giordano’s knows this, which is what makes the soundtrack such a delight to partake in.